With waste and overproduction causing significant issues in the fashion industry, could on-demand clothing manufacturing hold the solution?
On-demand clothing manufacturing is when garments are made only when and if they are needed. It eliminates producing large product shipments before items are sold and represents a sleeker approach to fashion.
While versions of manufacturing on-demand clothing have always existed in some form in the bespoke and tailoring sector, technology has made it a more viable option in modern industry.
The process can be done a few ways, one way is through automation and specially designed factories, such as those owned by Teemill, that create individual orders in real time. Alternatively, brands can wait to reach a certain quantity of orders which they then send to a traditional mill, ordering only the pre-ordered quantity of items.
The core foundation to on-demand manufacturing is that only items that have been ordered are made. It doesn’t require making items ahead of time or anticipating sale numbers. An item bought is an item made.
Should brands Use On-Demand Clothing Manufacturing?
On-demand manufacturing comes with a myriad of advantages and disadvantages. Key advantages and disadvantages of on-demand production include:
Eliminates Unnecessary Production and Deadstock
When clothing is produced and never sold it costs companies money and wasted time and causes a disastrous environmental impact (see our article on the clothing waste crisis for more information). On-demand manufacturing largely eliminates this issue.
Gives Greater Flexibility to Brands
If clothing is made as it is ordered it gives brands the ability to be unconstrained by season runs and allows them to operate with an agile approach, rapidly changing with consumer desires. Plus, without the burden of a backlog of products that must be sold, designers can create new pieces to appeal to changing tastes.
This production method is particularly advantageous for start-ups. New companies can test new products or concepts without having to place large stock orders that may not be sold.
Production Costs Can be Higher
Unfortunately, and unsurprisingly, it is often cheaper to produce items in bulk. As an on-demand model inherently has smaller product batch sizes, each order placed can cost more per item than products ordered in traditional, large batches.
While on-demand services can limit the cost of products going unsold, they can cost more to initially produce. This can result in higher per item costs for companies and higher prices for consumers.
Wait Times can be Longer
While this partly depends on the exact system and technology a company uses, wait times for on-demand products can be longer. Companies can’t simply package an item from a stock room and send it, nor can consumers walk into a store and buy a product using this model.
On-demand production requires customers to wait for their product to be made before it is shipped to them. Automated, specially built factories can help remedy this delay, with wait times shortened to a few hours if only printing is required to a few weeks or days for a whole garment, depending on the automation installed.
However, even with these models in place customers still have to wait for a product to be made and shipped, posing a disadvantage to time-conscious shoppers.
A Technological Solution
From online ordering to highly automated factories, technology definitely plays a part in on-demand clothing manufacturing. While it can be done with traditional factories and companies placing small order batches after a certain number of products have been ordered, factories are increasingly being fitted to create products quickly and individually.
This is particularly true with on-demand printed products. A good example of this is the Teemill factory on the Isle of Wight owned by sustainable fashion brand Rapanui and shared with other brands that want to use it.
Teemill utilizes technology to print designs “in the seconds after they are ordered”. Software automatically configures the design for printing, creating an automated and fast process.
As factories continue to become increasingly automated and retrofitted for an on-demand business model, industry production lead times that historically have been anything from weeks to years may dwindle to hours.
AI and beyond
Does it Work for Big Brands?
Fashion is big business. There are companies in the industry that are dizzying in the sheer size and scale of their production. It has been reported that just one fashion production company in Bangladesh is responsible for making 400,000 pieces of clothing a day. A quarter of these pieces were destined to stock the shelves of H&M. So, will an on-demand model work for companies of such scale?
On large scale businesses like these, an on-demand concept is yet to be comprehensively tested. In theory, with the right technology and the right business strategies, it’s possible. However, it would require an overhaul of current production and business models.
However, if the giants of the industry could switch to an on-demand model it could dramatically help save the astronomical overproduction levels plaguing the sector.
For more on where our clothes are made, see Where do clothing brands manufacture.
ASOS, Unspun and Amazon
Some big name brands such as Zara and Asos have started some limited approaches to on-demand manufacturing in some areas of their production. However, it is more common in smaller, more agile businesses.
As well as Rapanui mentioned above, Mayamiko, based in England, uses on-demand production, Citizen Wolf in Australia has also adopted an on-demand model as has Unspun, based in the USA. The wide range of markets these organisations are operating in proves the success of such a model in markets around the world.
Will it Fix the Fashion Industry?
On-demand clothing manufacturing by itself is unlikely to be the saviour of the fashion industry. However, it is a valuable piece of the puzzle in creating a more sustainable future for fashion.
On-demand clothing can help to reduce needless fabric waste and limit environmentally disastrous overproduction, saving countless clothing items from being destroyed, sent to landfill or literally burned every year.
The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the unpredictability of market desires as world events made fashion forecasting for this period virtually impossible. This led to large amounts of unsold items and deadstock. A wide scale adoption of on-demand manufacturing would have helped to prevent issues such as this stock accumulation and would have reduced the waste levels that were created.
However, it must be part of a wider approach to sustainable fashion. For on-demand clothing to be sustainable it needs to be made from sustainable products, in ethical supply chains and at the end of its lifecycle it needs to be disposed of sustainably.
To make a meaningful impact, the on-demand model would also need to be adopted across the industry, rather than by just a few brands.
To be part of the solution to fashion’s environmental problems, on-demand models must be implemented alongside other sustainable solutions and alongside a change in a consumer mindset towards a more conscious approach.
An On-Demand Future
On-demand clothing manufacturing offers a radical shift in the modern manufacturing environment. It has the power to help cut down on waste and provide companies with greater agility in a rapidly changing market.
While it may currently be used on a relatively small scale, this innovative production model could very soon be forming a key part of a cleaner, greener fashion sector.